Cartagena Diary, Pt. I: Food for Thought

By Marc Hanson

Editor's Note: RI Senior Advocate Marc Hanson is in Cartagena, Colombia, this week for the Summit of the Americas. Click here to read his second entry.

Yesterday was consumed by flights (DC to Houston, Houston to Bogota, Bogota to Cartagena) and long delays at the airports in between. This provided plenty of time to occupy the mind with reading.

I completed Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia by Garry Leech. It tells the story of how Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict and drug war have shaped life outside the country’s urban centers, which receive far more media coverage from national and international news outlets. Beyond Bogota takes a hard look at the prevalence of armed conflict in rural Colombia and the ramifications of fumigation aimed at reducing coca production.

One scene from the book is particularly haunting. In it, Leech describes his encounter with 130 villagers who had fled their homes in terror after two members of the community were killed. In a crowded community center where the displaced campesinos have taken shelter, one tells him, “Our entire village is here living in this building. We are not used to the city. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us here.”

The parting image Leech gives of the community is that of a 16-year-old displaced girl, huddled with five younger siblings as her mother and father scavenged the streets for food and basic household items. When Leech asked what she wanted for the future, she responded, “Peace, love, and calm.”

In Colombia, people are forced off their land for many different reasons, but generally one of a three causes is to blame. If the land is resource-rich, outside groups may use violence to gain control of it. If the community is perceived to have sided with a party to the conflict, the opposing group may exact revenge through threats or targeted attacks. Or if the land is of strategic value – either for the drug trade or the conflict – civilians may be cleared out to make room for illicit activities. These same patterns of displacement have been going on in Colombia for decades, and America’s foreign policy toward Colombia – which fails to consider the underlying drivers of displacement - at times exacerbates this devastating cycle.

It was in this frame of mind that I picked up and read the opening chapters of David Rothkopf’s immodestly titled Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. The opening chapters offer an overview of the post-World War II world President Truman inherited and the reorganization of government that he and his advisors undertook to create the NSC. As my final flight came to an end and I stashed the two books in my carry-on, what struck me most was the enormous chasm, the vast distance between the concerns of the (exclusively) men who devised the national security architecture in the late 1940s and the day to day struggles of people affected by their policies.

Today, it seemed to me, the same policy-to-impact gap exists and is too seldom bridged. However, when advocates can confront policy-makers with the ramifications of their choices, policy fixes are possible.

From the airport in Cartagena, I hitched a ride on one of the many Summit of the Americas shuttles to my hotel. We drove along the beach until we entered the winding roads of the old city’s colonial neighborhoods. It was 2 am by that point and the streets were largely abandoned, save a few young wanderers and a considerable police presence. The Summit will take place nearby and the organizers, apparently, aren’t taking any chances with security.

The excitement begins with Colombia’s foreign minister and the general secretary of the Organization of American States giving opening remarks at the Social Actors Forum, where NGOs and civil society actors will gather to discuss regional priorities. The rest of the day will be filled with presentations and break-out sessions on economic equality, social inclusion and citizen security. My role will be to make sure that the region’s displaced people aren’t left off the agenda.